Commentary about the "ichneumonids" continues apace, and again I must apologize for belabouring this topic—but Reginald Shepherd still seems to be missing the point that, Bernstein and I are not endorsing any hyperbolic comparison between poetic conflict and social genocide—we are merely citing (both critically and ironically) the very fact that Fenza does! Fenza equates the avant-garde with a parasitic insectoid that threatens to eradicate literature, and he implies that such a cannibal intruder must be "stung to death" before it can contaminate or exterminate the hive of our culture. Shepherd might question his own claim that such rhetoric does not arise from "sheer malice" if, for such a hateful conceit, he substitutes by comparison, any marginal identity other than the avant-garde (be it gays or jews—or whomever…).

Shepherd does not acknowledge that Fenza actually imagines the avant-garde to be a "government intent upon eradicating the…reading public"—but rather than chide Fenza for making such a hyperbolic comparison between poetic conflict and social genocide, Shepherd prefers to upbraid Bernstein and me for being so "offensive" as to make explicit this paranoid rhetoric deployed by the director of the AWP. Shepherd then apologizes for Fenza by saying—in the face of such disturbing, hyperbolic tropes—that Fenza "has got a point" (you know, theory does in fact constitute a "cookie-cutter" threat to poetry), and all the while Shepherd fails to take into account that Fenza is himself promulgating a "cookie-cutter" theory, one whose rhetoric partakes of the very ideological obfuscation that Fenza nevertheless imputes to the avant-garde.
Shepherd cites his own extended readings of theory in order to point out that avant-garde scholars really do "misuse" poetic theory (and he forgets, perhaps, that I, too, have read lots of books by the likes of Derrida, Lyotard, and Deleuze, et al.—so I, too, can vouch for similar misuses of such poetic theory in the academy)—but all this scholastic experience does not seem to have helped Shepherd either to recognize or to castigate the discursive "creepiness" in the theory by Fenza. Shepherd fails to acknowledge that Bernstein and I might criticize the rhetoric of Fenza because we, too, expect an argument to comply with evidence, clarifying, rather than obscuring, the facts at hand—and we, too, might find "offensive" and "upsetting" the use of a genocidal discourse to browbeat scholars who might refuse to "join the hive."
Shepherd fails to see that Bernstein is "darkly amused" by Fenza, in part because of the political condition under which such a paranoid diatribe gets written—a terrorist condition of total peril, in which avant-garde artists like Steve Kurtz have already become collateral sufferers. Shepherd has already balked at me describing the USA as a nation on the brink of becoming a "hyperfascist, surveillance state"—so in the interest of critical dialogue, I might refer him to the article entitled Fascist America in 10 Easy Steps by Naomi Wolf, who provides convincing arguments that, despite the apparent freedoms still upheld in America, the administration has eroded the foundation for them in so corrosive, yet so unopposed, a manner that such "fascism" must constitute a kind of upgrade upon any past form of totalitarian encroachment (hence, my own use of the prefix "hyper-"). I think that, under such circumstances, a few cautionary caricatures of authority might seem tonic.
(Thanks again, Reginald, for enduring the onslaught of such provocative controversy….)

Originally Published: February 9th, 2008

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994), a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial...

  1. February 10, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Christian,
    I am honored that you have now devoted two blog posts largely to me, and I appreciate the spirit of dialogue. In that spirit, I offer two responses, and then I at least must put this whole business behind me, as it has occupied too much of my time and energy for too long.
    It is true that satire and parody are not my favorite aesthetic modes. It seems to me a waste to devote so much creative energy to something that one hates. But given that, I was quite aware that Bernstein wsa engaging in parody and caricature, and said so in my post. I just object to the terms and means of his satire. I don't find jokes about Stalinism, Nazism, or McCarthyism to be funny, nor do I think those terms are so emptied of meaning that they can used as all purpose slurs. Given the suffering and death these phenomena caused, I find such use of the terms to be intellectually and ethically irresponsible.
    I have a similar response to the use of the word "fascist," let alone "hyper-fascist," to describe contemporary America, which is indeed quite degraded in many ways. But at the very least, if we were living in a fascist state (I know people whose parents did), we wouldn't need an article by Naomi Wolf to tell us so. Nor could such an article be published in such circumstances.
    I have no issue with Bernstein attacking the AWP, though obviously I don't agree with him. But I think that even satire and parody should be done in responsible, and accurate, terms. To modify something someone said on The Simpsons, it's only funny if it's true.
    My second point is simpler. I do understand what Bernstein was saying and what you are saying. I just don't agree. Comprehension does not require agreement, and a person is not lacking in understanding simply because they don't share one's viewpoint. The assumption that they must be is simply condescension.
    Thanks again for the attention, and for the spirit of dialogue.
    Take good care. If you are in Calgary right now, stay warm!

  2. February 11, 2008

    Why do discussions of poetic programs, movements, and controversies, conducted at fairly high levels of generality, provoke plenty of further discussion, as measured by comment threads online, reponses in journals, and chatter at such venues as AWP, while discussions of individual poems, poets and artistic accomplishment provoke (by comparison) almost none?
    What if the real ichneumonid is represented by such articles as Fenza's, and by such dramatic position-takings as some of Bernstein's, infiltrating bodies meant to hold, nurture and test poetry and criticism, and replacing them by attacks on, and defenses of, enormous ideas,s amid which the individual poems and poets and books are barely distinguishable, forming one big digestible lump?
    "All poetry is experimental poetry." Including poetry that labels itself as such. And, as in any experiment, negative results are still results.

  3. February 11, 2008

    > Why do...
    Gresham's Law.